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100% Digital Leeds: Bridging the city’s digital divide

Bev Wright, Head of Local Communities Practice at O2, talks about the mobile network’s tablet lending service initiative with Leeds Libraries.

Last year, O2 partnered with Leeds Libraries to deliver a secure, managed tablet lending service as part of the drive towards ‘100% Digital Leeds’, the city’s ambitious plan to improve digital accessibility for the residents of Leeds. The project not only provided valuable digital training, but enabled people to access a whole new world of digital, with genuinely life-changing impacts.

There are around 90,000 adults in the city (14% of the population)* who are classed as digitally excluded. Not only is the number alarmingly high, but many come from the most vulnerable sectors of society, including the elderly, those in poverty, young people coming out of care, and those in social housing.

According to the government’s own digital inclusion strategy, there are several reasons why individuals become digitally excluded; some people lack the skills or confidence to use the Internet, others simply cannot access it, for example they cannot afford a broadband connection.

We set out to try and change this in Leeds and bridge the city’s digital divide.

We worked directly with Jason Tutin, Digital and Learning Development Manager for Leeds Libraries to scope the right solution for Leeds:

“O2 didn’t simply present us with an off-the-shelf solution. They wanted to understand what we wanted to get out of the tablet lending scheme and how they could tailor a solution to meet our needs.”

During the pilot, Leeds Libraries provided the tablet lending service, together with basic training to three local organisations, each with different reasons for wanting to be online.

  1. OPAL (Older People’s Action in the Locality), a charity that helps older, often socially isolated people to live safe, healthy independent lives without isolation. The tablet lending programme enabled their members to book GP appointments, to shop and to keep in touch with friends and relatives.
  2. RETAS (Refugee Education and Training Advice Service) provides vocational and employment training to asylum seekers and refugees in the city. By extending the tablet lending scheme to groups of ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) students, they were able to develop their English skills, prepare themselves for employment and stay connected with family and friends overseas.
  3. Children’s Services. When young people leave the care system they can be at their most vulnerable. The scheme enabled them to use the tablets to apply for jobs and prepare for other further education courses and programmes.

Leeds is by no means alone, or untypical in its need to tackle digital inclusion. Indeed, the government’s own digital inclusion strategy involves developing the role of libraries, making them the ‘go-to’ provider of digital access, training and support for local communities. And at O2, we see this initiative with Leeds Libraries as just the first of many such projects.

Examples such as this highlight the utmost importance of supporting the latest technologies to drive digital transformation to improve customer experience. Technology is changing the way people access, consume and use content, and the possibility to change lives is real and hugely significant.

I am passionate about supporting digital inclusion across the country, so if you are a library service, housing association, local authority or anyone would like to talk to O2 about supporting your digital inclusion project, please contact me on LinkedIn.



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